Tuesday, January 8, 2008

America’s Next Top (HIV) Model?

© 2007 Leighann Lord

have an agent who sends me out on auditions for on-camera commercials and voice overs. Recently they sent me out on my first print audition; a pleasant surprise since I'm not a model. Well meaning friends and a few industry people have suggested I go out for print work, but quiet as it's kept, I don't photograph well.

"Pshaw," you say. "I've seen your headshots." Yes, they’re good, but it's agony from start to finish. To be fair, it's not the photographer's fault. The vicious cycle begins with me: I don't think I photograph well, ergo I'm not comfortable in front of the camera. My discomfort and all physical flaws – real and imagined – show up in the shots. I then end up sifting through tons of awful photos just to find the one that doesn't make me cringe.

I tell this to photographers all the time. At first they don't believe me; then they start taking photos and fall strangely quiet. This usually means they're trying to find the best way to tell me about the wonders of Photoshop.

This bothers me sometimes, but I’m learning to live with the idea that I’m one of those people who’s beautiful live and in the moment. I think this is preferable to having a photo that looks a lot better than you do. When you meet people who’ve only seen your headshot they can’t always hide their shock and disappointment at the disparity. It’s so much nicer to hear,
"Wow, you look way better than your picture."

My first print audition turned out to be for a product called Lexiva, a medication that treats HIV infection. I heard my agent mention this on the phone but it didn't register until I was asked to sign a waiver stating that if hired, people may assume I am HIV positive even if I’m not. This concerned me but I figured this was an opportunity to get over my "I don’t photograph well" complex and get some print audition experience. I don’t think watching the first season of "America's Next Top Model" counts.

The session was brief. The photographer sat me down under the lights, asked for four looks, snapped a few shots and I was out the door. Looking at all the serious model types who went in before and after me, I didn’t think I stood a chance.

I was surprised when my agent called to tell me I was on first refusal. Figures. I seem to have a knack for doing commercials for products I don't use:

Century 21: Not in the market for a house.
Toyota Highlander: I own a Honda.
Lean Cuisine: I prefer home cooking.
US Cellular: I've got T-Mobile.
Elexa "The Female Condom"

I'm sorry, I firmly believe (no pun intended) that a man should buy his own. With my track record I’m surprised I haven’t done an ad for Lexus. My husband is a sweet and generous man, but I don’t think this will be a "Lexus December to Remember."

Now suddenly the waiver I signed and what it meant felt a little more serious. What if I did the shoot and my face appeared on bill boards all across America advertising an HIV medication? What if people really did assume I was HIV positive? I wonder if other actors have reservations about doing commercials or print work for drugs like Lexiva or even Valtrex (Herpes) or Cialys (erectile dysfunction)? How many of my agency’s regular’s said, "No" when they found out what the product was? This would certainly explain why I got such an out of the blue call.

Why not just take the money and run? Does it matter what strangers think? Personal goals and artistic integrity aside, a successful career in entertainment by it’s very nature depends a great deal on what strangers think. To pretend otherwise would be disingenuous.

That leaves friends and family. It shouldn’t matter what they think because they love you and know the truth, right? Well, a few years ago my husband did a print campaign for a diabetes medication. The campaign was targeted toward the medical community. My husband doesn’t have diabetes, but that didn’t stop our family doctor from assuming he did after seeing my husband’s face on the literature.

So yeah, I’m a little concerned that doing a print ad for an HIV drug will make people think I'm HIV positive. Am I being shallow? Is my attitude perpetuating the climate of misunderstanding and insensitivity for the people who are indeed living with HIV? If my own vanity and insecurity leads me to turn down this job am I giving up the opportunity to do my part in battling a disease that disproportionately affects my community and my gender?

These are uncomfortable questions I didn't expect to face on a simple print audition. But alas, I’ve expended all this mental anguish over a job I didn't get. My agent called a few days later to release me. Someone else got the job. The decision was made for me, and yet I still wrestle with the what if.

Deep down I know if they had hired me, that these would be the best photos ever taken of me. They’d have to be. If the goal is to sell medication, the manufacturer wants the people in the pictures to look supremely happy and healthy. Now, at last, I’d look way better in print than I ever could in person, because that’s how Mr. Murphy and his law works.

I’d need stock in Revlon, and a well training pit crew of makeup artists and lighting experts to maintain that look; otherwise, I’d seem ill by comparison. And then people really would begin to wonder and whisper about my health.

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